Friday, September 9, 2011

North Dallas Forty

Directed by Ted Kotcheff.
1979. Rated R, 118 minutes.
Cast: Nick Nolte
Mac Davis
Charles Durning
Dayle Haddon
Bo Svenson
Dabney Coleman
Steve Forest
G. D. Spradlin
Savannah Smith Boucher

Phil Elliot (Nolte) is a veteran wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls. Everyone seems to agree he has the best hands in the league. Over the years, his body has taken a tremendous beating. He’s in constant pain and seems to subsist on a diet of painkillers, B12 shots, cigarettes and alcohol. Citing what they call his childish attitude, his coaches have taken him out of the starting lineup and are constantly on his case. He pines to get his job back and does whatever it takes to be ready to play.

Doing whatever it takes seems to be the mantra he and his teammates live by. It pushes these men to the extremes in all situations. For them there is only intense pleasure or sharp pain. Though the two often mix, there really isn’t a middle ground. They are emotionally and socially underdeveloped, applying a football mentality to all areas of their lives. The sport encompasses their entire beings. When Phil laments “It’s the only thing I’m good at,” he seems to be speaking for the whole team.

Their shortcomings reveal the sacrifices they’ve made to get as far as they have playing the game they love. The question Phil must wrestle with, the one they will all have to answer at some point, is does the game love them back. His every effort is met by a naysaying head coach who hands down orders to be barked by his drill sergeant of an assistant. The two function remarkably like a ventriloquist act. Regardless, Phil perserveres. We come to admire and pity him simultaneously for what he puts himself through. We become his friend and wonder if he has any others in his own lockerroom. We doubt very seriously whether the one guy who seems to be on his side truly is.

The movie also has shortcomings. The biggest one is that the love story between Phil and Charlotte (Haddon) seems to come out of nowhere. He meets her early on. She disappears from the movie for quite a while until we suddenly see the two waking up in bed together. It also feels a little rushed given that the entire movie spans a time frame of only about 3 weeks.

Still, more than any movie before it, and perhaps since, North Dallas Forty gives us a long realistic look at the inner-workings of professional football. Though the amount of dollars has increased exponentially and the drugs involved have mostly changed the framework seems to still be intact, judging by the recent lockout in the NFL. The ‘us against them’ attitude of both players and owners still feels present. The owners still hold most of the cards, able to cut a player at any point regardless of contract. Players fearing for their livelihood still put their bodies through arguably inhumane treatments to stay on the field. A number of these same players act out immaturely leading to a sport-wide arrest rate seemingly quite a bit higher than that of the public at large. Coaches rely on an endless stream of data to create gameplans and remove emotion from the decision making process. It’s all summed up beautifully by the eloquent words of Jo Bob (Svenson), frustrated, fed up and yelling at one of his coaches: “Everytime I say it’s a game, you say it’s a business. Everytime I say it’s a business, you say it’s a game!”

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